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BIRMINGHAM, England — Liz Truss campaigned for the Tory leadership on a message of hope. It’s a quality in short supply among her party faithful.
The mood at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week has been dark, as Tories unconvinced by Truss’ economic program despair at their chances of victory at the next election.
“What I increasingly think is going to happen is we’re going to accept our fate. She will just shrivel — her administration and her ability to do anything will shrivel,” said one former government aide.
A minister added: “A lot of people are waiting for her speech now. If it’s crap, and she’s her usual wooden self, it could be curtains.”
The signs for Truss — due to give her conference speech late Wednesday morning — are ominous. Since her tax-cutting “mini-budget” sent the pound plunging and the financial markets into turmoil, the opposition Labour Party has surged ahead in the polls.
The PM — who entered No. 10 saying she was not afraid to make unpopular decisions — has already been forced into multiple policy U-turns. Most explosive was a late-night reversal on controversial plans to cut the top rate of tax, an idea that had prompted open revolt among her backbenchers.
Her media appearances have also failed to convince, and this week the normally supportive Daily Mail newspaper savaged her leadership.
Most worryingly of all, discipline among her senior ministers looks to be breaking down. As Truss mulled a real-terms cut to welfare Tuesday, Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt argued on Times Radio that it in fact “makes sense” for payments to rise in line with inflation. Truss’ Welsh secretary, Robert Buckland, told journalists the “safety net” was “important.” Immediately, Truss’ fledgling plan looked dead on arrival.
Against this backdrop, Truss’ future appears perilous. Former Cabinet minister Grant Shapps, who supported her rival Rishi Sunak in the recent leadership contest, warned: “I don’t think members of Parliament — Conservatives — if they see the polls continue as they are, are going to sit on their hands. A way would be found to make that change.”
Certainly the Conservative Party is famed for its ruthlessness, having killed off its last two leaders in little over three years. Would MPs really have the stomach to do it all again?
Some are sanguine about the idea. “It’s quite clear this has been the most catastrophic start to a government anyone can remember,” said a senior Tory MP.
Another, pointing at the polls, added: “If we face a choice between extinction and change, the party will choose change.”
The same minister quoted above confirmed there was already “a lot of chatter” about letters of no confidence being sent to Tory backbench leader Graham Brady. Bloomberg reported one such letter had already been submitted.
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Technically, Truss is safe from challenge for a full year under the current party rules. Only after that, if 15 percent of all Tory MPs submit letters to Brady’s 1922 committee of backbenchers, would its executive members meet to discuss a confidence vote in the leader.
But another minister warned: “If things are bad enough, the rules can be changed or fudged. If Graham Brady gets 80 letters of no confidence, I can’t imagine him sitting on his hands.”
A senior Conservative who bumped into the famously tight-lipped Brady last month said they had remarked on a potentially busy month ahead. Brady reportedly just rolled his eyes and replied: “Who can tell?”
One added complication that may count in the PM’s favor is that the executive cannot meet until October 18, when new MPs will be added to its number. Several former members of the executive who caused headaches for Boris Johnson have now been given ministerial jobs under Truss, and cannot serve.
Brady has already demonstrated his clout to the new administration, having reportedly taken it upon himself Sunday night to inform Truss in person that her tax cut for the wealthy would not fly. Her U-turn swiftly followed.
If Tory MPs do work up the nerve —and create a mechanism — to get rid of their new leader swiftly, some believe they should not then risk repeating the bloody two-month leadership contest that played out over the summer.
“It would have to be a coronation,” a minister warned. “We can’t spend another six weeks tearing chunks out of each other when Labour is 30 points ahead in the polls.”
But it’s unclear how such a bitterly divided party could possibly unite around a single successor. Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose recent leadership bid underwhelmed many colleagues, has withdrawn into the shadows, staying away both from the press and the conference in Birmingham.
Some have mentioned former Cabinet minister Michael Gove — an outside bet, having been unsuccessful twice before — and even Shapps, regarded as competent and a decent media performer.
Some names are now being pushed openly on the conference floor. In another sign of party indiscipline, Truss’ recently appointed Trade Minister Conor Burns told a fringe event that her former leadership rival Kemi Badenoch was “the future of our party.”
Still lurking in the background, too, is Boris Johnson, about whom rumors of a possible comeback had begun before he’d even entered office. Although he too stayed away from Birmingham, Johnson’s presence has been keenly felt. Even MPs who still support Truss were eager to publicize the fact he’d this week been named president of the Conservative Friends of Ukraine.
Losing the will
But others believe the idea of defenestrating Truss so soon is a nonstarter.
“The country would think we were insane,” said one MP, who observed that the recency of Johnson’s ousting was the main thing keeping her safe.
Indeed, a type of fatalism has begun to creep in among some Conservatives who believe that the electoral wilderness beckons after 12 years in power.
“People will drift away, they just won’t care, they know that their seats are going to go. People will lose the will to fight,” said the same ex-aide quoted above.
A former No. 10 official, who served under all four previous Tory prime ministers since 2010, added: “It feels like it’s over — and maybe that’s healthy. It’s been a long time.”
Already Truss’ options look limited, given her rapidly shrinking authority over an unruly party. One idea being floated is a reset of her No. 10 operation, or even a reshuffle of the Cabinet she only named one month ago.
At a fringe event, former Brexit Minister David Frost said: “The team around her already needs refreshing, and maybe some new voices. It’s obvious the party is a bit disaffected, and there needs to be some reaching out.”
One senior Cabinet minister suggested Truss could even be forced to reach for the nuclear option.
“I’ve got a horrible foreboding that this is the tip of the iceberg,” they said. “[Her critics] may be a real drag on her so that she’s in a checkmate position, where she is forced to go for an election.”
But another Cabinet minister guided away from this idea, saying an election was the last thing most Tory MPs wanted given the parlous state of the polls.
They acknowledged the situation was “hard” but insisted Truss had the “resilience to get through it” after eight years at the top of government.
Truss would run Downing Street “more like a proper office and not like a court,” said the supportive minister, contrasting it to Johnson’s No. 10 operation which was run like a “Grace Brothers department store — different people on every floor with their own little agenda.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman, another Truss ally, told POLITICO: “I just hope that this is the last of Tory infighting and we can get focused on the battle ahead … It’s just indulgent, a waste of time and very, very damaging.”
Several MPs posited that Truss’ current predicament was at least likely to be her lowest ebb, and that things would surely now improve as she found space to communicate her message and as opinion polls leveled out.
Even among the most supportive MPs, the bar is being set pretty low. As one put it, the party’s best hope now was that Truss recovers slightly, and “leads us to dignified defeat.”
Eleni Courea, Emilio Casalicchio, Annabelle Dickson and Ailbhe Rea contributed reporting.